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Garry Winogrand, Restored to Greatness
Nina Martin | Photo: Garry Winogrand | March 8, 2013
The SFMOMA's blockbuster new show, opening this weekend, is a much-deserved reassessment of one of the most important—and misunderstood—photographers of the 20th century.
When Garry Winogrand died suddenly in 1984, the art world consensus—pushed by his own onetime mentor, the influential John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art—was that the 56-year-old photographer was a has-been whose later work was vastly inferior to the vibrant streetscapes of his early years in New York. SFMOMA’s big new show isn’t just a retrospective—it’s a much-deserved reassessment, including nearly 100 photos never before shown and, in many cases, never seen by the artist himself. The dazzling exhibition reaffirms Winogrand's reputation, once and for all, as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.
Winogrand loved to take pictures but not to spend time editing his work, and when he died he left 2,500 rolls of unexposed film and another 4,100 rolls that he had developed but not reviewed—virtually the entirety of his output in the last six years of his life. But even in his heyday in the 1950s and '60s, Winogrand "felt a fundamental discomfort ... in bringing his work to resolution," as one admirer put it. All of which left him vulnerable to misinterpretation. "I think Szarkowski was disappointed in his old friend," says SFMOMA's assistant curator of photography Erin O’Toole, one of the show’s three organizers. "The later work was too negative for him. This was not the Winogrand that he loved."
In mounting the first major Winogrand show in a quarter-century, his friend, guest curator Leo Rubinfien, spent years poring over 22,000 contact sheets archived at the University of Arizona. The narrative that emerged, Rubinfien says, was of a brilliant photographer who saw himself as "a student of America... trying to understand what made this country most itself." Whereas the youthful Winogrand seems energized and inspired by what he sees around him, the later Winogrand is clearly ambivalent about the chaos of the late 1960s and its aftermath. He spent his last decade based in Los Angeles—the ideal place, Rubinfien says, "to see where freedom went when it went too far." As he neared the end of his life, Winogrand’s tone was frequently anxious, even bleak. Nevertheless, “he felt he was at the height of his powers," O'Toole says, adding: "many of the new images we found blew us away.”
"Garry Winogrand," organized by SFMOMA and the National Gallery of Art, runs through June 2 in San Francisco, then travels to Washington, D.C., Paris, and Madrid. For more information, go to sfmoma.org
A version of this appears in the March 2013 issue of San Francisco.